Who doesn’t love sushi?
The traditional Japanese dish continues to gain popularity around the world and has entered the pantheon of foods that seem to be universally loved. But unlike tacos and pizza, sushi is actually good for you!
Or is it? While sushi may have a reputation as a healthy meal, not all sushi is created equally. Here’s how to get the most out of your roll.
Sushi typically consists of cooked, vinegar-flavored rice, raw or cooked fish, vegetables and a seaweed wrap (known as nori) that holds everything together. It’s traditionally served with pickled ginger, soy sauce and wasabi as condiments. But though those are the basics, you’ll find an overwhelming amount of variety if you take a step inside a legitimate sushi restaurant.
There are five main types of sushi—hosomaki, futomaki, uramaki, temaki and nigiri.
Hosomaki is a seaweed roll that contains rice and just one type of filling. Futomaki is a thicker seawood roll that contains rice and several types of filling. Uramaki is a type of sushi that contains several ingredients, but the seaweed is on the inside of the roll and the rice is on the outside. Temaki is a cone-shaped roll meant to be eaten by hand (think of it like an ice cream cone, but the cone is nori). Nigiri is a simple type of sushi that consists of mounds of rice topped with thin slices of uncooked fish. If you’re looking to keep the calorie count to a minimum, hosomaki and nigiri are often good bets due to their simplicity.
The seafood included in sushi is almost always healthy. Tuna, salmon, yellowtail, mackerel, trout—all are low in calories, high in protein and serve up a significant dose of healthy omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats are critical for optimal brain and body function, as they can help prevent inflammation, heart disease and possibly even cancer. If you’re looking to pick a sushi that’s sure to be high in omega-3 fats, go for something that includes salmon, tuna or trout. Shellfish like crab and lobster are similarly low in calories and high in protein, so the seafood included in sushi is usually quite nutritious.
RELATED: Why You Want Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Your Diet
Nori is also quite healthy. A one-sheet serving has just 10 calories. It also contains nutrients like calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin C and protein—though the amount of Nori used to make sushi is likely too small to deliver a significant amount of these.
The rice used to make sushi can be problematic for a couple reasons. Traditional sushi rice is made with sugar, rice vinegar and white rice. This recipe helps the rice stick together and makes the sushi taste better, but at a cost. White rice is already high in carbohydrates, and adding additional sugar can cause a greater spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. This contributes to overeating and puts you at a higher risk of medical conditions like insulin resistance, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. If you’re being smart about your refined carbohydrate intake overall, the white rice used in sushi won’t sabotage your diet; but you’re probably better off choosing brown rice, which is higher in fiber (which will leave you feeling fuller for longer after your meal) and won’t spike your blood sugar as much as white rice.
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The vegetables used in sushi are often quite healthy, though that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms, yams, ginger, eggplant, asparagus—these are all healthy foods that are low in calories and packed with nutrients.
Avocado is another common inclusion, though it’s technically a fruit. Avocado is a great source of healthy fats and fiber, and the small amounts used to make sushi help keep its serving size sensible (avocado is fairly high in total fat, so eating multiple servings of it on a regular basis could have a negative effect on weight management).
The simpler sushi is, the better it usually is for you. A sushi that contains nothing more than seaweed, rice, seafood and/or vegetables is almost always going to be a fairly healthy choice as long as you don’t go crazy with the serving size. But some ingredients or techniques used to make sushi can quickly degrade its overall nutritional profile.
One nutritional red flag is the word “tempura.” This means that the sushi roll has been fried in batter, adding a significant amount of calories and fat to the dish. For example, a Shrimp Tempura Roll has roughly 21 grams of fat—about what you’d find in a Double Cheeseburger from McDonald’s (and most people won’t be satisfied with just one roll). The word “crunchy” can be another tip-off that the sushi has been fried in some way.
As sushi has become “Americanized,” a number of non-traditional ingredients have found their way onto the menu—namely cream cheese and mayonnaise. Both of these ingredients are high in saturated fat and calories, and it doesn’t take much of them to alter the nutrition of an entire meal. If a sushi roll has “spicy” in the name, there’s a good chance it’s been topped with a mayonnaise-based sauce. Philadelphia Rolls typically include cream cheese.
As far as condiments go, you’d be wise to stick with wasabi and pickled ginger. Both are quite flavorful yet low in calories.
Ginger is a good source of potassium and magnesium and may help the body fight off infection. A 2013 review concluded that ginger “can treat a wide range of diseases via immunonutrition and anti-inflammatory responses.” It’s even been found to reduce muscle soreness after intense exercise.
Wasabi is a spicy green paste made from the grated stem of the Eutrema japonicum plant, which is in the same family as cabbage, horseradish and mustard. Wasabi is high in nutrients and antioxidants. A 2000 study concluded that it could be a “potential functional food(s) for keeping human health.”
Soy sauce, on the other hand, is a condiment best used sparingly. A single tablespoon contains 879 mg of sodium, nearly half the recommended daily limit. Studies show that 9 in 10 Americans consume too much sodium. Over-consuming sodium can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and a wide range of other issues. Health officials estimate that if Americans lowered their daily sodium intake to the recommended range, it would prevent up to 92,000 deaths annually. Although athletes who work out at a high intensity for several hours a day can get away with eating more, people who work out only moderately (for an hour or less per day) typically don’t sweat enough to warrant a high-sodium diet.
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If you keep things simple and use the correct condiments, sushi can absolutely be a healthy food. Many Americans don’t eat enough vegetables or fish, so sushi is a great dietary inclusion for many people.
However, there is one other significant concern—mercury. Mercury pollution makes its way into our rivers, lakes and oceans, where it’s absorbed or ingested by small organisms before becoming a part of the food chain. You can’t see, taste or smell the mercury in fish, and cooking has no effect on it. Mercury exposure is an especially important concern for young children, women who are pregnant or those who are expecting to become pregnant.
From the Natural Resources Defense Council: “Popular sushi fish are often the apex predators of the food chain, so they tend to be high in mercury. If you’re pregnant, nursing, or planning a family, you can reduce mercury exposure from sushi by holding back on all types of tuna, mackerel, sea bass and yellowtail. Fish and shellfish like eel, salmon, crab and clam are lower in mercury.” This shouldn’t be a major concern for the general population, but Health Canada recommends limiting intake of such fish to a maximum of 150 grams per week (about two servings) for most people. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or are expecting to become pregnant should limit consumption of such fish to 150 grams per month.
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